A selection of military, seafaring and imperial terms that are often used in everyday English
Above board: in full view on the deck of a ship, thus honest, without deceit.
Action stations: the place to be in a battle or any crisis
Ahoy: a nautical call to attract attention
Albatross: a symbol of a burden or bad luck: an albatross around his neck. A reference to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge
All’s fair in love and war: The rules of fair play do not apply in love and war. John Lyly, 1578
As solid as the Rock of Gibraltar: Gibraltar is a very powerful symbol of stability and of British identity. British opinion does not understand, because it is not told, that there are legitimate disputes surrounding the status of the isthmus and the territorial waters. But Spanish opinion fails to understand the depth of emotional attachment that Gibraltar reaches in the British psyche. Gibraltar, it is said, will remain British for as long as there are apes living on it. During the Second World War Churchill ensured that the ape population of the Rock did not decline.
At the wheel: in control. From a ship’s wheel but now often used to mean in control of a road vehicle (at the steering wheel)
Backfire: (Sp. salir el tiro por la culata)
Band of brothers: from Shakespeare’s Henry V. The King refers to his army as a band of brothers in his speech before the battle of Agincourt.
Batten down the hatches: close the covers on the deck of a ship in bad weather, thus prepare for serious difficulties
Battle of Britain: the air war against Germany in 1940. See The Few; Spitfire.
Beat a retreat: retreat, withdraw.
Berth: a place on a ship where a sailor sleeps
Bilge: rubbish, nonsense (Sp. pantoque)
Bitter end: now this means a point that is reached with pain and suffering. The bitter end is the end of a rope, e.g. the anchor cable. This is not connected with the usual meaning of bitter as a taste.
Blackout: turning all lights out so that an enemy cannot see them. Also used for a news blackout and also for a power cut.
Blighty: a slang name for the UK, used by military personnel overseas
Blitz: the Blitzkrieg (lightning war) was the German name for the bombing of the UK in 1940-41. Used to mean a sudden attack or effort: I must have a blitz on the housekeeping.
Blue Peter: the flag flown to show that a ship is about to leave harbour. The name of a very popular children’s TV programme which has been running since 1958.
British Grenadiers: a patriotic military song.
Broadside: a devastating attack, originally from all the guns on one side of a warship (Sp. andanada).
Bull’s eye: the central part of a target
By and large: in general. Originally a ship’s ability to sail in different wind conditions
Cat: the cat o’ nine tails was the whip with nine parts used to punish seamen. See No room to swing a cat.
Charge of the Light Brigade: a cavalry charge in the Crimean War. British cavalry were sent to charge against Russian artillery because of a mix-up in the orders. Of over 600 men in the charge 118 were killed, 127 wounded and about 60 taken prisoner. French Marshal Pierre Bosquet said of it: C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre. C'est de la folie. It is seen as an example of the bravery of British soldiers and of the incompetence of their commanders. It was the subject of a famous poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson: Theirs not to make reply, / Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die: / Into the valley of Death / Rode the six hundred.
Coup: the usual English expression for a military take-over of power in a country (Fr. coup d’état)
Cross swords with someone: to have angry dispute
Crossfire: to be caught in the crossfire is to be receiving attacks from both parties in a dispute in which you are not involved.
Cut and run: to escape from danger quickly but at a cost. Originally by cutting a ships anchor cables or other ropes
Cut of his jib: someone’s appearance or attitude. I (don’t) like the cut of his jib. Originally it referred to the appearance of a sailing ship from which it could be identified or its performance could be judged.
Dambusters: in 1943 the UK attacked several dams in Germany, using specially designed bombs that bounced on the water to bust (Sp. reventar) the dams. The RAF squadron that carried out the attack was known as the Dambusters. A film of the raid was made in 1955.
Davy Jones’s locker: the seabed as the graveyard of drowned sailors.
Devil to pay: There will be the devil to pay means that there will be serious trouble. It refers to a complicated and difficult maintenance operation on sailing ships the details of which need not concern us here.
Doldrums: to be in the doldrums means to be down-hearted or in low spirits (Sp. las calmas ecuatoriales)
Drake: Sir Francis Drake is a great British national hero. When he returned from circumnavigating the world he was knighted (given the title Sir) by Queen Elizabeth in Plymouth. See Singeing the King of Spain’s beard.
The full selection of military, seafaring and imperial vocabulary is available to registered users of DIPLOTAXIS.
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